Unique treasures have already been lost: from weaving mills in Lancashire to the military record of the Light Infantry in Durham; from the steam-powered tools of Leicestershire, to a renowned collection of photographs in Bradford. And now funding cuts are forcing more institutions, all heavily invested with municipal pride, to either close for good or shut off some galleries, and to sell off prized collections or consign them to town hall cellars.
“I remember reflecting on how people were surprised to discover the important collections held by local authority museums around the country, and maybe wondered why we have them,” said Bill, who helped to curate the new Egyptian show, Beyond Beauty, at London’s Two Temple Place. “These museums are different from the national and university museums. Although we hold world-class collections, with objects from around the globe, our exhibitions are first and foremost aimed at local people and we approach the display and interpretation with their needs very much at heart.”
All in all, 44 local authority or trust-run local museums, galleries and heritage sites are thought to have closed their doors since 2010. The only hope, according to Maria Balshaw, director of the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester, is to urge the wealthy to make more philanthropic donations, as their counterparts in the US do, and their Victorian predecessors did.
I've no solutions or suggestions to offer at present, just a sort of glassy eyed despair and some memories.
As a kid from a rather not wealthy background, my local library and museums were invaluable in my upbringing. In a time before the internet and a million TV channels, they were an accessible window onto cultures and concepts I could never have encountered elsewhere.
I was the strange kid who LOVED going to the local museum or local art gallery to see what was on show, and was fortunate in having family who valued these places and took the time to help me value them as well.
At Vernon Park I could see real bones from pre-historic people who had lived and died in the area before me, a tangible connection with the past that scared but intrigued me - I later studied pre-history. I could watch a video about the castle that used to sit in our town, and feel pride in our (now vanished) local industries. I could marvel at geological specimens, fossils, exotic birds and strange wooden carvings, which were right in front of me.
There was nothing of national significance, nothing flashy - but it informed us about our local origins, instilled civic pride, and open up our minds about some areas further afield. If someone from my town could effect change in parliament, or be a great scientist, or explore jungles, why not me?
In later life, the museum relocated, and the contents were re-displayed in a new building closer to the town centre. It was a shame to take the collection from its historic building, but it allowed more people more access and provided a chance for new displays and interpretation. Only small part of what used to be on display is shown, but, it is shown in a much better way. When I worked on the front desk of the museum, I'd hear parents and children chatting about "I didn't know that..." as they left.
The local museum being free at point of use (paid for by taxes) gave my family somewhere we could go and something we could do for nothing, or at most just a bus fare and the cost of an ice cream and pot of tea. However, I was always encouraged to drop some money in the donation box, be it my own 'pennies' or some given to me by grandma. The message was being instilled in me that although it was 'free', I should show my appreciation and we should be thankful for the place existing.
This is why I agree with some local museums introducing entrance fees. If you need the money, or face closure, just be honest, make it a fair price for the content, and make sure you're able to put on and publicise exhibitions and events to attract your locals back in again and again, happily parting with their cash. Local museums can offer relateable, real and lasting experiences that no amount of google image searches or TV documentaries can provide.
As a kid, we may not have made as many trips to the local museum if we'd had to pay for them, but we still would have gone, because for a couple of pounds is worth it for your local heritage and pride to remain local, accessible, and inspiring for future generations.
Webcomic and occasional blog about the heritage sector.
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